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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Musk's Empire - The Power of Engineering

Science is the body of knowledge learned from exploring the physical and natural world. 
Engineering is the application of knowledge in order to solve problems and fulfill needs.

No offense to Andy Weir but Mark Watney was applying his knowledge, so he didn't "Science the 💩 out of this," rather he "Engineered the excrement out of it." 😃

If you ask a scientist about a bridge design, they might say, "It works under one model, but fails under another model." So if you want to know if it would work in the real world, ask an engineer.

Engineering is about getting things to work in the real world. This is very different than getting something to work in a controlled lab. The real world has to contend with massive temperature variations, dirt, grime, margins of error, tolerances, weather, metal fatigue, wear and tear, etc.

Science's job is to be out ahead of the rest of us, making discoveries. The applications of those discoveries may not be readily apparent. When Michael Faraday first discovered the electro-motive force, his initial demonstrations were not much more than a metal needle spinning in a conductive fluid. At one of his demonstrations, he was asked what use could this invention ever have. His response was, "What use is a newborn baby?" Meaning this discovery had much-unrealized potential. Faraday didn't stop at just discovering the science; he went on to do the engineering work too and made the first electric motor and soon after the first electric generator. His discovery and the inventions that followed are at the heart of our modern world. Nearly all electricity (except solar) is created by turning a generator. This discovery was crucial; however, it was the engineering work that converted the scientific foundation from a newborn babe into useful machines.

Applying This To Elon Musk

One criticism of Musk is that the things that he's delivering were not his ideas. Musk is known for SpaceX, Tesla, The Boring Co., Starlink...  The criticism goes something like: there were electric cars long before Musk was born, they were not his idea. The "vac-train" was invented in 1799, so Musk's Hyperloop idea was not a new one. Starlink was not a new idea, SpaceX had even launched satellites for OneWeb. They took the idea from their customer. Landing rockets has been common in sci-fi since Buck Rogers in the 1930s and Bell Aerosystems demonstrated vertical landing rockets in 1961. Musk and Co have never had a unique idea. </crit>

Let's disassemble this criticism. I have an idea for a matter transporter. No wait, that was Gene Roddenberry. I have an idea for a time machine. No wait, that was H.G. Wells. Now if I actually built one of these (or both, because why not), would you say, "You just copied someone else's idea!"? Of course not. Imaging these is not the hard part; creating them is where the difficulty lies.

The idea is important, but without the engineering work to bring it forth into the world as a real thing that we can interact with, it's just an idea. Great for fictional works or demonstrations of a needle spinning in a dish of water, but these alone will not bring about the next industrial revolution or change how you and I live our lives.

Musk's accomplishments (actually all the engineers and technicians that work for him) are not coming up with new ideas. The accomplishments are solving all the problems that were encountered going from concept to product.

There are millions of ideas out there. What matters is selecting from them, something that is possible, meets a need, and has not been done yet. It's about looking at the good ideas that we already have and then making them work. It's about raising the newborn babe into a functional adult.

Let's deep dive into one specific product: Solar Glass Roof. The idea for roofing materials with integrated solar is not a new one. There are several patents (including one from NASA) dating back to the 1970s for "building-integrated photovoltaic."  Many many businesses have tried to make this into a viable product and failed. Some were solar roof tiles, some had flexible roll-on solar that went over a metal roofing, others even had solar collecting windows. In 2016, Green Tech Media wrote an open letter to Elon Musk and the Brothers Rive (then running SolarCity) asking them (nah, pleading with them) not to go forward with a solar roof product. The author didn't want SolarCity (this was before they became a part of Tesla) to die upon that precipice as had so many other solar companies. The author lists nearly two dozen companies and solar roof products that seemed like great ideas but never made it beyond the prototype phase and in some cases, took the company down with them. 

Musk didn't hed this warning; he couldn't be waved off. He uses first-principle thinking to determine what is and what is not possible. This thinking had led him to determine that a solar glass roof was possible. Musk also adheres to the moto, although may be difficult, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted. He has said that when Tesla started, he knew the most likely outcome was failure. 

Tesla moved ahead with solar roof developments. They ran into many of the same problems as the other companies. However, Tesla had money, time, and brilliant engineers. Previous attempts were missing one or more of these vital ingredients. Tesla did not make the bulk of their revenue from solar, so they could take their time and work out the bugs. They had problems with wiring, couplings, clips, installation time, and more. They iterated the product, fixing, refining, improving. They hired roofing crews and had them install solar roofs on test homes and then looked at the results (how long did it take, did they get it right, how much breakage...) and they iterated more. Finally, in the second half of 2020 (five years after the Green Tech Media open letter), Tesla started installing solar glass roofs in quantity. They now have several roofing companies certified to install these shinny black roofs all around the US and they are expanding into Canada in the first half of 2021. 

This is a perfect example of the need for great engineering. The science of solar roofing was solved. Integrate a solar cell under a transparent protective roofing tile, nail them down, hook them up, and easy-peazy you have a solar roof. However, to make a product that can be installed in a day, will last 20 years under the Arizona sun, and survive Canadian winters is a difficult engineering problem.

The Physics of The Impossible

In his book, Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku defined 3 levels of Impossible ideas: 

Class I impossibilities - technologies we have no idea how to achieve today, but they do not violate the known laws of physics, e.g., energy shields or artificial gravity. These are things that might be achievable in a few hundred years plus or minus (mostly plus). 

Class II impossibilities - technologies that "sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world." These (like Class I) do not violate the known physical laws, but we know a lot less in these areas. We need to learn much more to truly understand the feasibility and, if they are deemed possible, they may require the entire energy of a star or a black hole. That certainly makes them impossible today, but with a thousand (or millions) of years of advancement may become possible. 

Class III impossibilities - These are the things that (based on the science we already know) are impossible. For example, perpetual motion machines and precognition are class 3 impossibilities.  

Musk and The Physics of The Possible

Why did we go through the list of impossibility categories? Because the first step to creating an innovative product is knowing what's possible. 

When one of Musk's companies wants to make something, they don't ask if something has been done before or how it is currently being done by their competitors. The first question is, "Is it possible? If physical atoms are arranged properly, can they function as needed?" This "atoms up" thinking, means they will try things that been attempted before either with the ignorance of past failures or hubris based on the list of "previously impossible" things that Musk Co. have accomplished. This is what I call a Class ½ Impossibility. There are no laws of physics that limit its possibility, you don't have to wait 100 years for it, but it won't be easy; perhaps some prototypes or lab samples have been created, but it has not been productized due to some obstacles. 

It's relatively easy to take an existing product and make a derivative or a minor improvement. However, this will not result in a breakthrough product. If you want to productize something that's never existed beyond the prototype phase, that will be far more difficult. You might even say it will be hell, but as we said in our Mistaking A Clear View For a Short Distance article, Musk knows it will be hell; it's just that he's been on the trail through Hell so many times that he could be a tour guide.

Musk has been on the trail through Hell so many times that he could be a tour guide.

Tesla's Innovation Moat 

This tendency to take on Class ½ Impossibilities gives Tesla (and other Musk-o-verse companies) a competitive advantage. Most businesses are worried about next quarter's results and would not be willing to fund product development for years without assurances that it will be profitable. 

Full Self Driving is another example. This falls into the category of things that are possible, but not yet productized. Tesla has been working on this since at least 2015. They have hired a hardware and software development team with some of the best talent in the world. According to our estimate, Tesla will be working on this until 2027 before they have a true Level 5 robotaxi fleet. That's 12+ years of engineering work before arriving at the destination. Although this estimate is a decade behind Musk's original estimate, it is still likely 5 years ahead of competitors. That's more like a Silicon Valley tech company than a car company. That's Tesla's Innovation Moat.

Disclosure: I'm long TSLA

Monday, March 22, 2021

Spring 2021 Has Sprung! First Net Positive Day w/ Tesla Solar and Powerwall

On Friday March 12th, we generated more electricity than we used. Here in NW Oregon, we usually have short cloudy/rainy days in the winter. Well, spring is here and the days alternate between sunny blue skies and rainy.

When July/August hit, we'll have more sun, but the AC will be on, boosting our energy use, raising the bar for energy-positive days, so these sunny spring days are the easiest. 

Looking at the timeline for our net positive day, there are a few interesting moments. 
  • 3AM the EVs charge up. You can see the big spike in energy use. On a power level, this event is far bigger than anything else that happens throughout the day. 
  • 6AM peak rate hour start. The Powerwalls start discharging to remove our home from the grid load. 
  • 7AM the sun comes out. Our PV system started generating power. Since we were running in Cost Savings mode, the PV energy is sent to the grid during peak hours. 
  • 10AM peak ends. I'm not sure why, but the battery continued to discharge. This is not what usually happens. 
  • Noon Powerwalls start charging with solar. 
  • 1PM Powerwalls stop charging. They were not full but stopped charging for some reason. 
  • 2:30 PM Powerwalls start charging again. 
  • 5PM evening peak starts. Once again the Powerwalls start discharging to remove our home from the grid load. 
  • 8PM peak ends. The evening peak ended and yet the Powerwalls continued to discharge for another 2 hours. 
  • 10PM off-peak. As we hit off-peak, the Powerwalls stopped discharging. 
Why did the Powerwalls continue to discharge? We have the system in Advanced mode which is an intelligent mode that uses weather forecasts to "make room" to store anticipated solar production. That means that occasionally you might see mid-peak discharging. 

Of course, if you don't want all of this charging and discharging, you can just put the system in Backup-Only mode, but that's no fun.

Happy Spring Time, enjoy it while you can.  

Monday, March 15, 2021

2020 Solar Production Recap

We had solar panels installed on our home in late 2007. That makes 2020 our 13th full year with solar panels on our roof. That's over 13 years quietly, dependably, making electricity to run our home. We started with a 4 kW system and then added another 8 kW in 2015.

In 2020, together these two systems generated 12,345 kWh. Yes, it was really 1-2-3-4-5. This brings our lifetime total to 94,137 kWh. At 14¢ that would be ~$13,000 worth of electricity. If these 94 MWhs were used to charge a Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus, it would be able to drive more than 600,000 km or nearly 16 times around Earth. 

Here's a chart of our lifetime production: 

If you look closely at the summer of 2020, you can see that the production flattens out faster than in previous years. That was due to the various fires that darkened our skies. It's ironic that the fires are made worse by global warming and they are reducing our solar production. A vicious feedback cycle.

2020 ended with our Powerwall installation on New Year's Eve. 

Referral code

If you are interested in a Tesla solar glass roof or their solar subscription program, you can use my referral link and after activation, you'll get $100 of free solar energy. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

When Will Tesla Cars Drive Themselves?

Tesla vehicles have amazing technology. They have big screens, real-time traffic, over-the-air updates, streaming music, you can play video games, and even watch Netflix movies (while parked). 

More to the point of this blog entry, they also have Autopilot. Autopilot is an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) that includes:
  • Traffic-Aware Cruise Control: Matches the speed of your car to that of the surrounding traffic
  • Autosteer: Assists in steering within a clearly marked lane, and uses traffic-aware cruise control
As an ADAS, it is clear that the driver is required to be alert. This system is intended to ease cognitive load and allow the driver to have better situational awareness. It is *not* intended to allow drivers to use their phones or take naps. 

The next level up from Autopilot is Full Self-Driving (FSD) Capability. This includes: 
  • Navigate on Autopilot (Beta): Actively guides your car from a highway’s on-ramp to off-ramp, including suggesting lane changes, navigating interchanges, automatically engaging the turn signal, and taking the exit
  • Auto Lane Change: Assists in moving to an adjacent lane on the highway when Autosteer is engaged
  • Autopark: Helps automatically parallel or perpendicular park your car, with a single touch
  • Summon: Moves your car in and out of a tight space using the mobile app or key
  • Smart Summon: Your car will navigate more complex environments and parking spaces, maneuvering around objects as necessary to come find you in a parking lot.
  • Traffic and Stop Sign Control (Beta): Identifies stop signs and traffic lights and automatically slows your car to a stop on approach, with your active supervision
  • Autosteer on city streets (coming soon as I write this)
There are a few important things to point out about "FSD Capability." The first thing to note that all of these features still require driver supervision and many of them are still in beta or even in limited release beta. That is to say, this is not yet a fully autonomous vehicle, despite the FSD monicker. The second thing to point out is the word "capability." A piece of paper is capable of being folded into a paper airplane, but that does not make a flat sheet of paper an airplane. So when you buy the FSD Capability, you are buying a sheet of paper with some folds in it, and the promise that there will be updates to finish folding it the rest of the way.

If that's what you want to buy, good on you, go for it. I did and I've been very happy with the progress of the FSD Capability. I just wanted to paint a clear picture that when you buy the FSD Capability, you are (currently) still getting an ADAS, just one with more functionality than most. 

Musk's "Coming Soon" Comments 

When will Tesla's FSD evolve from 'just' ADAS to a true fully autonomous vehicle? Elon Musk has been asked this question in several public forums. Here are some of his replies:

[12.22.2015] “We’re going to end up with complete autonomy, and I think we will have complete autonomy in approximately two years.”

[10.19.2016] Discussing the new Autopilot hardware, Musk said, "It is fully capable of Level 5 autonomy, a big step forward." *Note the work 'capable' verses something like 'functional.'

[06.12.2018] Tesla’s cars will in August suddenly activate “full self-driving features,” the company's chief executive Elon Musk tweeted on Sunday. "Features" meaning some subset of "Full."

[10.21.2019] "Next year for sure, we will have over a million robotaxis on the road"

[07.09.2020] "I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level five autonomy complete this year." Where "basic functionallity" is again a subset of "full".

[01.28.2021] "Basically, I'm highly confident the car will drive itself with reliability in excess of a human this year. ...we need to probably do a little bit more work to prove that Tesla Autopilot is capable of full self-driving, which, I think, will become obvious later this year."

As you can see, in statement after statement, Musk had high confidence that FSD-Level 5 will happen soon (where "soon" is any time 2017 or later). I submit to you that all forward-looking statements about something that's never been done before should be taken with a grain of salt. Additionally, these statements are often made under a Safe Habor Clause that provides legal protection for optimistic speculation. Careful parsing allows you to find the caveats (e.g., 'I think', capable, features, basic...), that a quick enthusiastic read (or an intentionally malicious misread) will miss. If you want a vehicle to drive you from A to B tomorrow, I suggest that you take the train, a bus, use Lyft, or hire a chauffeur rather than buy FSD.

If you want a car that can drive you around right now, while you look at your phone, FSD is not it. Take a Lyft instead. 

If, however, you want to be involved in testing one of the most exciting robotic systems that humankind has ever created (and you don't mind continuing to be a responsible driver), then FSD might be worth your hard-earned money. Today, using the Smart Summon feature a Tesla vehicle can (usually) pull out of a parking space and drive to you in a parking lot. This is a nice feature to have if your parking spot has flooded or you have large/heavy items that you don't want to lug through the parking lot.

If you want to test one of the most exciting neural net robotics systems that humankind has ever created (while continuing to be an attentive driver), then FSD is worth the money.

So When Will Full Autonomy Arrive?

In other (less optimistic) statements, Musk has said that they'll have to "chase the nines" to get to full autonomy. I think these are the more realistic statements from Musk that acknowledge that there are many many edge-cases that they will need to resolve and that will be a long process. Musk is a perennial optimist and I don't think his estimates are meant to be deceptive. Rather, they are ambitious goal statements that he believes to be possible. Musk excites, motivates, and manages using moonshots and urgency. It is a proven formula at Tesla (and SpaceX). They have accomplished things that no other company has ever achieved (just not on the publicized timeline). It is also important to note that even though Musk's initial target was 2017 and full autonomy has still not arrived, Tesla has continued to make forward strides every year. Sometimes, when you are doing something for the first time, there are challenges that you didn't even know existed until you get there and encounter them (unknown unknowns). 

Stop Sidestepping the Question! When Will It Happen? Give Me A Date!

It is impossible to predict. Neural nets have a strange tendency to be incompetent for many many iterations and then, suddenly, something clicks and they do amazing things far surpassing your expectations. This means the next build could be the one, but I've gone on record saying that August of 2027 is when the scales tip and it is more likely than not that FSD (full autonomy, Level 5, remove the steering wheel, take a nap and wake-up at your destination) will emerge. That does not mean that it won't exist in limited forms (fair weather, geofenced...) before then, nor does it mean that it impossible before that date. It's just a probability distribution. If you want to know when it is 99% likely, move your bet to 2040.

Disclosure: I'm Long Tesla

Monday, February 15, 2021

Powerwalls During A Power Outage (Valentine's Day Blackout)

Downed trees in Oregon
Photo Credit: Wade Radcliffe

Our Powerwalls were installed on December 31st, 2020. Just six weeks later, we've had our first power outage. This was our chance to see how well they perform. 

There's an ice storm in the area. Freezing rain has glazed over the bare winter branches in our yard. Storm Watch is enabled and the Powerwalls are charged to 100%. Over 250,000 homes in the state have been hit with power outages. Some have been without power for 48 hours as I write this.

On the evening of Valentine's Day, our neighborhood joined many others in the darkness. The streetlights went out. Looking up and down the block, the houses were dark, with the exception of ours. 

The power had been out for about 5 minutes before we even noticed. We didn't notice because, in our house, things had continued normally. The Powerwalls had taken over and they were running everything. The lights were still on, TV was on, the internet was even still working, and the washing machine was running.

We had no idea how long the power would be out. The sun had set for the day; we were not going to have any solar support. With grid out and no solar, it was all up to the Powerwalls. 

The first thing I did was run around the house turning off and unplugging nonessentials. As I mentioned above, the washing machine was running. It was in the final spin cycle, so we opted to let it finish the run. This was one nice benefit to having Powerwalls. If we didn't have them, the washing machine would have been stopped mid-cycle. This could have left us with soaking wet soapy clothes. Once the washing machine finished, our consumption rate dropped.

I collected data periodically for the charge level of the Powerwalls during the outage. You can see it in the graph below:

After 2 hours and 35 minutes, our power was restored. We were lucky that our outage was just a short one. A few minutes after the power was restored, the Powerwalls handed the load of our home back to the grid. Then as if to test the newly restored grid, the Powerwall started to recharge. The Powerwalls were recharging at a rate of 10 kW, with the other loads in our house, we peaked at a 16kW grid load. After ~20 minutes the Powerwalls were recharged and our grid load dropped to a normal rate. 

How Long Will The Powerwalls Keep Lights On?

Now that the outage is over, it's time to see how long the Powerwalls would have lasted. Luckily, our outage was only a few hours and the Powerwalls were never below 80%, so to determine how long they'd last in total, we'll have to do some extrapolation. To do this, we'll use a few methods. We'll add a trendline to the above graph and see where it lands. We'll look at our consumption data (percentage-wise and kWh-wise) and do the math based on the Powerwall capacity. 

Method One: Lineraly 

This one is a simple analysis. We used 19% of our charge in 2 hours 35 minutes. Taking this linearly, the total charge would have lasted about 5 times that duration or 13 Hours 35 Minutes. 

This, however, includes the time that the washing machine was running and so is not a very accurate estimate.

Method 1 Result: 13 Hours 35 Minutes 

Method Two: Trendline

For this trendline, I selected a 3-period trailing moving average. This allowed the washing machine period to be ignored and projected forward based on the latter portion of the sample. 

This trendline predicts that we'd have drained the Powerwalls by 11AM the next morning. This is just ~18 hours. It's longer than Method 1, but not as long as my pre-purchase calculation which led to our decision to buy three Powerwalls. The goal was 24 hours of backup.

Method 2 Result: 18 Hours

Method Three: Consumption

The other methods were tops-down. This one is bottom-up. It usually a good idea to try to look at things from a few angles to see the bigger picture. For this one, we need to know how much capacity we have. We have 3 Powerwalls. Each Powerwall has 13.5 kWh of usable energy, so that's 40.5 kWh. 

Looking at our usage data from the Tesla app during the outage, it says that we used 3.375 kWh during the outage. That's an average rate of 1.3kW. At that rate, 40.5 kWh would last 31 hours. 

Method 3 Result: 31 Hours 


I was very happy that we had Powerwalls when a blackout hit our neighborhood. It allowed us to keep the lights (and heat) on during the outage. Our outage was less than 3 hours long and the Powerwalls covered it completely with more than 80% charge remaining when the grid came back online. 

We used 3 methods to estimate the total duration the Powerwalls would have powered our home. The most pessimistic estimate was 13 hours 35 minutes. The most optimistic estimate was 31 hours. To determine which one is more accurate, we'll need a larger sample set. The truth is likely in the middle and if we needed to stretch things further, we could have reduced our home load to just the bare essentials, until the sun comes out and gives us a little solar power support.

Disclosure: I am long Tesla

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The ICEBerg :: Legacy Automakers Unable To Let Go of Their ICEy Ways

Just like the Titanic headed towards an iceberg, the legacy automakers are headed towards a disaster. The automakers, like the ill-fated ship, have been in a fog; their's is a fog of uncertainty rather than a literal fog. The uncertainty for automakers has been around electric vehicles (EV). Will there be customer demand for EVs? Will the technology be dependable? Will it be profitable? Or should they stick to internal combustion engines (ICE) that they used to build their business? 

Over the last decade, these questions have been answered; the fog has cleared; EV ranges have increased, the charging times have decreased, charging networks have proliferated, EVs are the future. Yet, the legacy automakers are unwilling or unable to steer away from this looming collision that I've dubbed the ICEberg. 

The combustion engine was once the machine that made the automakers profitable companies, now it is the anchor around their necks, anchoring them to the past, preventing them from driving into the electric future. It is the ICEberg into which many will crash.

Bloomberg recently reported that EVs are about to cross the tipping point where their initial price will be lower than similar class gas-powered cars. This (combined with the lower running costs and smoother, quieter ride) will mean that the majority of new car sales will quickly transition to electric during this decade. Once a tipping point is reached, the world changes quickly; companies that are caught on their heels could miss out and join the ranks of those that dominated one era but fell into obscurity after a transition.

Despite the evidence of this upcoming sea change, many of the largest automakers are bound and determined to ignore or downplay the looming change. Even when they acknowledge the importance to embrace the future, as VW's Chief Executive Herbert Diess has, the company culture makes it nearly impossible to change. 

Let's look at two of the biggest automakers and see how they are dealing with this: Toyota, in denial; and VW, in culture shock. 


At Toyota's recent annual meeting, the company's CEO, Akio Toyoda, went on an anti-EV rant. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the things Toyoda said included claims that EVs were more polluting than gasoline-powered vehicles. This "longtail argument" has repeatedly been proven false by several credible studies.

Toyoda claimed that EVs are too expensive and that government EV mandates will price people out of new cars. It's true today that you cannot buy a sub $20k car with 300 miles of range, but that will not remain the case. Batteries have recently dropped below the $100 per kWh mark and they are continuing to decline, and when fueling and maintenance cost factors are included, EVs are already more affordable to own in many categories.

Toyoda's attitude has permeated the company and it shows in their marketing campaigns as well. See the ad to the right that bashes on EV recharging times. This ignores the fact that most charging happens overnight while you sleep. You wake up each morning with a 'full tank.' It also ignores the fact that on-the-go DC fast charging has gone from 50kW (CHAdeMO v1), to 120kW, to 270kW, to 350kW (CCS 1,000V) over the last decade. So today, you can recharge significantly faster than you could a decade ago.

As batteries chemistries continue to become more hearty and packs continue to get bigger, they'll become capable of even faster charging. Again, Toyoda seems to be willfully ignorant of this trend or intentionally spreading anti-EV information. 

Instead of talking about the convenience of charging at home or the environmental benefits of charging from an ever-greening grid (or even solar from your own roof), Toyota is putting out deceptive ads about “Self Charging” hybrids. 

This is a major inflection point in the auto industry. Toyota has been innovative in the past, but they are not currently displaying this innovative capability. Rather than trying to surf this EV wave, they are trying to hold back the tide. They should ask Kodak and Blockbuster how well that strategy worked. 

Perhaps Toyoda is not as anti-EV as these statements seem. One hypothesis is that Toyota is working on several EV projects behind the curtain. These projects, however, are not yet ready for prime time. They could be mass-produced today, but the trend in battery price reduction means that it would be more profitable for Toyota to produce EVs in 2025. When this profitability threshold is reached, then Toyota will announce their new product lines. They back-peddle on all the anti-EV statements by saying something like, "that was true at the time, but our new battery breakthrough eliminates all of the EV drawbacks..." This is the anti-Osborne effect method, downplay anything that you are not currently selling, even if you have similar products in development. 


VW is in a different place than Toyota. VW's Chief Executive, Herbert Diess, wants to go all-in on EVs. His efforts to reform the company have met with resistance from many levels within the company and in their dealership ranks. Even after the shameful events of Dieselgate, many within VW fight to retain their fossil fuel ways. Diess, frustrated with this resistance, demanded a vote of confidence in his leadership. He asked the board to let him lead the company into the future or send him packing. 

Powerful directors of various units within the company don't want to see VW change over to an EV company because it could mean the end of their department. EVs are fundamentally simpler machines than internal combustion systems. There are no pistons, no intake valves, no spark plugs, no crankshafts, no gearbox, no oil pan, no exhaust system, no catalytic converter; often there's no transmission... each of these are fiefdoms within the company and when you think your career is tied to a department, you'll fight to keep that department alive regardless of the CEO's vision. Other than the paint department, no one is safe. 

Speaking of jobs, VW's workers are mostly union employees. The union does not want to see layoffs and salary reductions. However, if the company is going to reinvent itself, that's going to mean rebuilding the company, which includes writing off stranded assets. All of this will be expensive. The company will have several years of little to no profitability as they transform. These lean years will mean fights with the union over jobs and wages. It will also mean unhappy shareholders. If you bought VW stock for its dividend payout, then you've already been disappointed when it dropped from 6.50 euros to 4.80 euros. We don't know what the future will hold, but I'm willing to bet that the dividend will continue on this downward trend as they have to build new factories or retool old ones for battery pack and electric motor production; as they have to pay severance packages; as they have to buy companies with the software skills for a modern computer-on-wheels car company. 

Let's not forget about VW's dealers. VW's marketing has been heavily advertising their ID.3 EV, talking about how battery-powered cars fight against climate change, and how VW is a pioneer in the drive to saying goodbye to Diesel and gasoline. Greenpeace Germany wanted to see if the dealerships reflected this messaging, so they sent secret-shoppers into dealerships around the country to see what the salespeople were saying. They visited 50 dealerships. Greenpeace found that if the secret shopper said they were interested in an EV, only eight dealers recommended the ID.3. If the secret shopper didn't mention EVs, then only 2 dealers even suggested the ID.3 as something that the shopper should consider. Despite being independently owned, dealerships and the salespeople that work there are the face of the company. If you want to buy a VW, you go to a VW dealership and talk to these salespeople. If they are not promoting EVs, even to customers that come in asking about EVs, then sales of VW's EV line will suffer. VW has a good EV in the ID.3, yet 84% of dealers did not recommend the car, even when shoppers asked about EVs.

VW is not the first automaker to encounter EV resistance at their dealerships. Dealerships are independently owned. They are not required to toe the company line. Much like the fiefdoms within a company, they act in their own best interest. Dealerships make most of their profits from service rather than sales. Sales can even be a loss leader for service. EVs, however, don't require much service relative to their ICE counterparts. In an EV, there are no spark plugs to change, no fuel filters, no oil changes... All resulting in few service visits and less service revenue. If EVs are not profitable for dealerships, they are more likely to steer people to the gas-powered cars that are profitable for them. 

Given this, the dealership salespeople are far more likely to repeat the anti-EV FUD that's circulated by groups with a vested interest in maintaining the fossil-fueled status quo. And this is exactly what the Greenpeace study found. When secret shoppers asked questions about EVs, nearly half of the answers were, at best, an ignorant “I don't know,” or at worse misinformation. Several salespeople volunteered various fearmongering myths about EVs to discourage shoppers from buying them.

Volkswagen is an 83-year-old automaker. They have a deep-set culture. A culture of making Diesel and gasoline cars; a culture where dealerships have an expectation for cars that need service; a culture where investors expect dividends; a culture where directors and vice presidents expect their departments to grow and thrive (or at least survive).  

Turning this behemoth into a modern high tech company will not be an easy feat. It's a culture problem. This is far more difficult to deal with than a technological problem. Every time the company promotes EVs as zero-emission or as better for the environment, it's an admission that their other products are pollution emitting and bad for the planet. They have products that some people at the company have spent their entire career developing, refining, honing. Being asked to recast that legacy as polluting and harmful is a pill too big for some to swallow. Some people within the company might see this as spitting on the sum total of the company history and all of their work for a current "fad" that "won't work" long term.

At the start of this VW section, I said that Diess called for a vote of confidence in his leadership. The board sided with Diess and he currently has their backing for “rigorously pressing forward with the largest transformation in the history of Volkswagen.” Diess went on to say: “In the upcoming years, we will continue to invest in electromobility, digitalization, and battery technology. At the same time, substantially reduce fixed costs and material costs throughout the Group in all brands and regions in order to ensure Volkswagen’s future viability.” We'll see if Diess can overcome the massive inertia within the company and dealerships.

Dealing With Disruption  

Disruption is not common in the auto industry, but it is common in the high-tech world. Maybe automakers can look there for some examples of coping methods. In the last few decades, Microsoft has reinvented or augmented itself several times. In the early 1990s, they were an operating system and office applications company (and they were ignoring the internet). Then in May of 1995, Bill Gates sent his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” company memo.  In it, he said, “I want to make clear that our focus on the Internet is crucial to every part of our business.” He went on to explain that they would not have an “Internet division”; instead, Gates expected every one of the company's products to embrace the internet. Later in 2001, Microsoft again added a new direction for the company with the Xbox gaming console. Then in 2010, they expanded into enterprise cloud with Microsoft Azure. Oh, and don't forget their failed phone efforts. This phone effort shows that you don't have to win them all, but the effort itself (win or lose) is a sign that they are not just complacently resting on their laurels. 

When you are in an industry that has a major disruption every decade or so, then when the next one comes along, you have leadership and employees within the company that dealt with the last one. There's a collective memory, there are toned organizational muscles ready for the fight. The auto industry has no such history, but perhaps they can learn from the industries that have this skill. For example, just as Gates did with his Tidal Wave memo, Diess could author an “Electric Vehicle Tidal Wave” memo to all of VW Group. The memo would set company-wide expectations that all departments are to be EV departments. All employee/executive bonuses would be tied to the company's EV sales growth. Similarly, there are ways that dealerships can have their incentives aligned to the parent company's EV goals.

Anyone that is not on board with this new company direction would be offered a severance package. This will be better for both the company and the employee in the long run. Long term, an employee would not be happy working someplace that they think is 'going the wrong way' and the company would be better off without people that want to anchor them to their ICE past. VW needs everyone rowing in the same direction.

Dealing With Company Culture 

A company's culture has been called its immune system. There are behaviors common in some companies that would not be tolerated in others and this is a function of their different cultures, leadership, and history. This immune system can also attack new ideas as if they were foreign invaders unless they are properly introduced into the culture.

Changing a company's culture is one of the most daunting leadership challenges. A company’s culture is not just one thing. It's how they communicate, their roles, goals, processes, shared values, practices, rituals, assumptions... all blended together in an interlocking system. 

Unless a company has a highly adaptive culture, it is unlikely that the culture will change significantly unless there is a serious shock to the system. The company has to collectively believe that the very existence of the company is at stake or else there's no motivation to do anything other than that which has worked in the past. This means that successful companies are often the ones that are most culturally ossified. This then means they are the ones least likely to adapt to market disruptions.

Success leads to complacency. Complacency leads to cultural ossification. This leads to an inability to adapt. Inability to adapt leads to extinction when things change. In the auto industry, things have just changed. 


Above are the stories of two legacy automakers. Both are headed towards an ICEberg. On the Toyota Maru ship, the captain insists that it's not an ICEberg and they will be fine; full-steam ahead. On the Volkwagen Zerstörer ship, the fog has cleared and the captain sees the ICEberg. He is calling for the crew to turn hard to starboard. However, the crew's response is, "We've been on this heading for 83 years; why should we change now?"

As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That's what we're witnessing. Not much has changed in the automobile industry in decades, they lack relevant strategic expertise, and they don't have a disruption-resilient culture. Even people with long careers in the auto industry have not had to deal with major disruption, let alone several hitting them at once. They may not be able to adapt despite management's strategy. Ironically, past successes are a primary reason they are not culturally equipped to deal with a radical disruption.

Over the next decade, we'll see how the transition plays out for these two titans and others in the industry. Will they maintain their status among the biggest automakers in the world or will they crash into the ICEberg and drown at sea like so many other companies that failed to change course when the world changed.

Alternative Analogies 

You've reached the end of the post proper. Writing this, I tried to stick with the ICEberg analogy, but a few other ideas came up. I thought I'd share the other possibilities here. 
  • BlackICE: Automakers have hit a patch of BlackICE and are headed toward a cliff; unable to steer away from it
  • Attractive nuisance doctrine: under tort law, this is a hazardous object that might attract and injure people. Similarly, the automakers are attracted to their status quo operations and it could be very hazardous for them. (this one is a stretch) 
  • Black Hole: Automakers are sucked towards a black hole. The question is, have they crossed the event horizon? 
  • Mathematical Attractor: In the mathematical field of dynamical systems, an attractor is one or more values toward which a system tends to evolve for a wide variety of starting conditions. System values that get close to the attractor values remain close even if slightly perturbed. 
  • Organ Transplant Rejection: EVs would be the new organ that the automakers need to survive, but the company culture antibodies are attacking it. 
Disclosure: I am long Tesla

Monday, February 1, 2021

How Tesla's Policies Discourage Owners From Buying A Newer Tesla Vehicle

There's no question that Tesla is an innovative company. Every year they have new features and new products. Many of these new features are via over-the-air (OTA) software updates. This is one of the great things about owning a Tesla. These upgrades keep ownership fresh and exciting. 

From the title, you might have assumed that this post would advocate for Tesla to end OTA updates. That's not the case, far from it. Rather, this post focuses on other policies that might make people think twice about trading in their current Tesla vehicle for a new one. 

Over the years, Tesla has had many offerings that are no longer available such as free Supercharging for life and free premium connectivity. If you have a car that has one of these features, you cannot buy a new car with the same benefits. If this is a feature that you use and like, you might think twice about buying a new Tesla without it.

Similarly, if you have paid for Full Self Driving (FSD) on your current vehicle, this does not carry forward to your next Tesla. You'd have to pay for it again if you wanted to upgrade to a newer Tesla vehicle and the price of FSD may have increased. The current $10,000 price tag makes this a non-trivial payment.

The last two to consider are the performance boost and range boost. In some of Tesla's vehicles, you can pay to reduce you zero to 60 time or increase your range. These two are a little more complicated in that they are not universally supported, so they may not be offered on a new vehicle that you are considering.

On the plus side, all of these items (free Supercharging for life, free premium connectivity, FSD, speed boost, range boost) should help increase the resale/trade-in value of your old car, but that's only a small consolation. It's really nice to take a road trip and know that you won't have a 'fuel' bill waiting for you when you get home. It's nice to stream Netflix and get live traffic information without a monthly connectivity bill. 

Let's look at the two examples in our garage. First, a 2016 Model X. This is an AP1 car with free lifetime Supercharging. I admit that I don't Supercharge all that often. Most days, charging happens overnight in our garage, but we have taken several summertime family road trips and the Supercharger network makes that pretty easy to do up and down the west coast. Carefree traveling on the Supercharger network is priceless.

Next, is our 2018 Model 3. This car has FSD and free premium connectivity. 

We are considering buying a Model Y, but with the current policies, we would not be able to get free Supercharging, free premium connectivity, or FSD (without paying for it again). This makes some aspects of buying a new Tesla feel like a downgrade. I understand why Tesla changed these policies; 'free' can incentivize the wrong behavior. It can create a 'tragedy of the commons,' some people become irrational about it and would even avoid the convenience of charging up in their own garage just to use the free Supercharging... So maybe there's a compromise. 

Possible Solutions

When you trade-in a vehicle with free lifetime Supercharging or lifetime premium data, Tesla could offer 2 or 3 years of the feature for free in your new vehicle. This is not exactly, the same, but it would ease the transition and perhaps I would not cling so hard to our older vehicles that have something that we cannot include in a new purchase. 

Another option is a transfer option (for a reasonable fee). If you want to keep a given feature, you'd be able to transfer it to your next Tesla. This would be a nice way to acknowledge the support that early adopters showed to Tesla, while still allowing them to upgrade without losing a feature to which they've grown accustomed. Tesla is able to collect data about how much these features are being used and could price the transfer accordingly. 

As for FSD, it would be really nice if you could transfer this from an old vehicle to a new vehicle. I understand that Tesla makes more money if they sell it with every car, but I'm not sure this helps them overall if I and others avoid buying a new car from Tesla because the price of FSD has gone up and I don't want to pay for it a second or third time. 

Elon Musk was asked about the ability to transfer FSD in the 2020 Financial Results call. He clearly stated that they have No Plans to allow transfers. Instead, they will offer a subscription option for FSD. The FSD subscription details will be coming out soon, so (as I write this) we don't know how much it will cost. Depending on the price, this may work out for people purchasing new vehicles, but what about the hundreds of thousands of cars that are currently on the road? They would continue to have a policy that dissuades some people (like me) from buying a new Tesla. 

I hope Musk and Tesla reconsider and take some action to remove these hindrances to new vehicle purchase upgrades. The new Model X is very tempting. Stalks are so 2020 ☺


Disclosure: I'm long Tesla stock